At first glance, it looks like a grenade thrown into the middle of the Brexit talks.
The FT reports — based on three unnamed sources — that the U.K. plans to undermine key elements of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement by introducing its own laws overriding some of the agreement’s provisions on state aid and customs relating to Northern Ireland.
Going back on an international agreement would be huge step and could indeed blow up the talks — as Ursula von der Leyen made clear on Twitter. But is that really what the U.K. is proposing?
No, insists No 10.
“We are fully committed to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol and we’ve already taken many practical steps to do so,” Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said today in response to the story. In No. 10’s telling, the new measures are simply legal safeguards should the Joint Committee (the talks — running parallel to the Frost-Barnier trade negotiation — which are determining how the NI protocol should be implemented) fail to resolve some key issues in time for the end of the transition period.
The Brexit story No. 10 wanted the EU to see today is a different one: Boris Johnson’s statement setting a mid-October deadline on the talks.
The new provisions in U.K. law reported by the FT — which will be laid out in the Internal Markets Bill on Wednesday and the Finance Bill after the Budget — are merely “limited and reasonable steps” to “clarify” certain parts of the NI protocol in U.K. law, a No 10 spokesperson said.
What are those steps? The first two, in the Internal Markets Bill, will enshrine “unfettered access” for goods going from Northern Ireland to the rest of the U.K. They will also set out the U.K.’s approach to state aid in Northern Ireland (but only within the limits of EU state aid law; elements of which — U.K. officials acknowledge — will continue to apply in Northern Ireland).
The potentially more contentious element will come in the Finance Bill. Here, the U.K. will seek to define (in the event the Joint Committee hasn’t done so already) which goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. count as “at risk” of going on to enter the EU’s single market and should therefore attract an EU tariff.
Under the terms of the NI protocol, it’s the Joint Committee that should do this. Officials say the U.K. just wants a legal safeguard so these processes can function on day one after the transition period, should the Joint Committee process not have got that far yet.
Complicated? Yes. And not the grenade thrown into the middle of the Brexit process that it appeared at first glance. But the new proposals are, nonetheless, a new source of tension between the U.K. and the EU at a critical moment.
It’s not clear how much of this No. 10 wanted to get out into the public realm today but officials have been keen to clarify the government’s position this morning. The Brexit story No. 10 wanted the EU to see today is a different one: Boris Johnson’s statement setting a mid-October deadline on the talks.
Whether it was a deliberate strategy, at the same time, to make public the U.K.’s intentions vis-á-vis the complicated implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement or whether this was just an unauthorized leak is hard to say for sure, though a leak inquiry has been launched. It’s certainly created confusion.
Von der Leyen’s tweet, pointedly saying she trusts the U.K. to implement the Withdrawal Agreement is a sure sign of that. You don’t tweet that you trust a negotiating partner unless that trust has been cast into doubt.
So not so much an explosive grenade blowing up negotiations — more a smoke grenade (thrown from who knows where) adding another layer of uncertainty, doubt and mistrust.
This insight is from POLITICO‘s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Transition Pro subscribers. To request a trial, email [email protected].